With current speculation all over the Internet about a possible death in the Batmanverse, I thought it might be fun to look back at a more "kinder, gentler" era in the Batman saga: the introduction of Tim Drake, who would become the Caped Crusader's newest sidekick. The year was 1989, and the smoke from DC's "Dial-A-Dead-Sidekick" Jason Todd stunt was still in the air. Presumably, Drake would wash the taste of all that brimstone and dead-Robinness from the DCU, and make Batman "happy" again. (note: an earlier version of this article was published on my personal blog)
Some of the last comic books I collected before my "Vertigo"/indie phase was the "A Lonely Place Of Dying" arc that ran through "Batman" and "New Titans" in 1989. This was the storyline that re-introduced Robin to the DC universe, in the form of bristle-haired Tim Drake.
Recently, I picked up a copy of the original trade paperback edition of this arc for $3 -- only 95 cents less than what it went for in 1990. Unlike most collections today, the comic is reprinted in the same -- if not perhaps cheaper -- newsprint paper of its source material. In rereading it, this was a bonus for me; because I could get as close to the initial experience of the comic books as I could.
But, as one will see in "A Lonely Place Of Dying" itself, one can never really replicate the original experience; and, if one can, hopefully it will not be as goddamn annoying as the way Tim Drake did.
I heartily apologize to all Tim Drake fans when I say -- he is absolutely dreadful in this arc. He out-Wesleys Wesley Crusher in this arc.
Imagine, if you will, that you are Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson, and some kid has not only figured out your secret identity, but is stalking you -- yes, STALKING -- and taking potentially incriminating photos that could blow your secret identity. When confronted on this, the person in question will justify his actions by pointing out that he is not only your biggest fan, not only has been so obsessed with you that he could think of nothing else for years...but that he assumes he knows what's best for you.
None of your business, Tim. None. Of. Your. Business.
This is what Tim Drake does in this book. He is the proto-fanboy, the male equivalent of a Mary Sue -- and it is just ADORABLE believe-you-me!
"A Lonely Place Of Dying" came at an interesting time for DC, and the comic industry in general. In the introduction to the collected edition, editor Dennis O'Neil recounts the whole call-in Jason Todd fiasco, as well as the history of Robins in general. I was surprised to learn that Jason Todd, when first introduced, wasn't really hated -- but served as more of a generic substitute for Dick Grayson.
When Max Allan Collins came on board, he suggested Todd receive a bit more of a distinctive personality by granting him a rebellious streak. This seemed to anger fans, who didn't want an asshole Robin who talked smack to Batman -- and when Todd narrowly lost DC's call-in promotion to decide if he lived or died, that seemed like the final thumbs-down on the character.
HOWEVER, the media and the public -- presumably unaware of this arcane lore involving multiple Robins -- assumed that DC killed the Robin, and subsequently had a shit-fit. Writes O'Neil:
"Although the circulation of our magazines is relatively modest, these characters have been so enduring, so pervasive, they have permeated our collective consciousness. Everybody recognized them. They are our post-industrial folklore and, as such, they mean much more to people than a few minutes' idle amusement. They're part of the psychic family."
Love that phrase, "part of the psychic family" -- I think it really nails the mass outrage that sparks when one of these iconic characters are killed of or changed. And certainly, nobody was more against the idea of a Change in the Batman status quo than Tim Drake himself.
"I think he needs you Dick," says Drake, "But he doesn't need Nightwing. He needs you as Robin!"
No can do, Grayson replies: I'm a grown-ass man now. This is apparently frustrating to Drake, who repeats multiple times this entreaty for Dick to cast-off his Nightwing blues and pick up the tights again. But, like the peskiest of pesky fanboys, he also repeatedly mentions "in passing" that he himself has the skills for the job:
"You know, since I was able to read, I clipped every article I could about Batman and Robin. Heck, I used to fantasize what it would be like to be Robin. I study hard. I get mostly A's. I work out. I'm no circus acrobat, but I'm pretty good, I guess."
You work out, Tim? Really? And you get "all A's"? That's great to know. Keep posing with that old Robin costume under your chin.
But as much as I'm busting on Tim Drake for his incredibly annoying and borderline stalker attitude in this story arc, I can also recognize that it is a classic wish-fulfillment tale tailor-made for the new crop of uber-fans raised, as I was, on the Direct Market.
Speaking of the comic industry, a rather interesting extended passage in "A Lonely Place Of Dying" involves Dick's old circus, which he finds in disarray after revisiting it after many years. The animals are not cleaned. The clown is an alcoholic. Everything has basically gone to shit. Why, Dick asks circus owner Mr. Haly: "When did it go wrong?" Haly replies:
"So when did it go bad? Last five-six years, I think. Too much TV, too many video games. Who knows? But it can't turn a profit. Hell, I can't even stay even. So I decided to sell, but the only bidder was some corporation who wanted their logo tattooed on the elephants...you know, sometimes I sit here and just remember the good old days. We were barely breaking even then, too -- but man, were we having fun."
Was writer Marv Wolfman describing Haly's circus in that sequence...or the comics biz?
In a bit of foreshadowing of what was to come in the industry within the next couple of years in terms of the "creator-owned" revolution, the lion tamer threatens to leave the circus and go off on his own:
"...the rest of you -- you're all losers...you're keeping this pony show alive when we all know it should be sold, and before you all drag it into the mud...you're all jealous, that's all. My contract says that if Haly sells I'm free to leave and make the big time -- while you're all stuck in this god-forsaken hell-hole."
Of course, the lion tamer gets his throat bitten out by a crazy feline. Spoilers.
And since "A Lonely Place Of Dying" was published in 1989, we pretty much know the rest of the story. The Tim Burton movie "Batman" reignites the comics craze (even though the director was quite Robin-resistant). "Robin" #1, along with "Spider-Man" #1 and others, helps set off a wave of speculation-frenzy, multiple covers, and the like. The great Image Exodus takes place. And so on...until the bust.
Through it all, Tim Drake -- the ultimate Batman and Robin aficionado, the boy who collected everything with their pictures on it, the boy who figured out their secret identities, the boy who insisted that the mythos could not change from CANON, the boy who manipulated one of the Hardest-Of-Hard-As-Nails crimefighters in the DCU to be "okay" with all this -- was the harbinger of the New Comic Fan.
Of course, Tim went a long way and through many adventures and writers since "A Lonely Place Of Dying" -- so I'm not trying to destroy his rep based on just this one arc.
And let's not forget the rest of the story, which includes a decent Two-Face storyline showcasing him at his best -- as crazy as a fruitbat -- and a glimpse at the last days of the classic Titans team a la Wolfman/Perez. Plus: Jim Aparo drawing Batman! So in a sense, "A Lonely Place Of Dying" was that very last glimpse of "old" (at least, 1980s) DC before the looming sea-change in the industry to come.
(Did DC ever reprint this? There's copies of the original graphic novel on Amazon if you have an extra 20-50 bucks to spare, but I think that's it.)
Will another Robin die soon? In this era of the Internet, would the fate of this sidekick be determined by a simple Poll Daddy widget, rather than phone calls? Would I prefer Tim kick the bucket, if I had the choice? Questions, questions...